A month ago, it was almost unthinkable that Maccabi Haifa's name wouldn¹t be etched on the championship trophy come May. But the race for the title was blown wide open on Saturday as Maccabi's indifferent end-of-season form continued with a goalless draw against local rival Hapoel Haifa, while Hapoel Tel Aviv won 3-1 at home to Hapoel Ramat Gan.
The results mean that when the top-six playoffs commence next week, the Greens will be just three points ahead of Hapoel Tel Aviv, with all 16 teams having their point totals halved after Saturday¹s contests ahead of the final five-match stretch.
Athough Haifa boss Elisha Levy brushed off the significance of Saturday's results, deep down, he must be seething at the very thought that throwing away the title is now a very realistic possibility.
"It's basically the same as it would have been had we won, only the gap is three instead of four," he said, rather unconvincingly. "It's going to be a fight until the end."
Also Saturday, ten-man Maccabi Tel Aviv made sure it will be kicking off the playoffs in third place with a hard-fought 1-0 win at Betar.
Elsewhere, a brace by Hamad Ganayim gave Bnei Sakhnin a 2-0 win at Ahi Nazareth, ending a breathtaking second-half of the season for Marco Balbul's men. However, they just lost out on a place in the top-six playoffs to Ashdod, which beat Hapoel Petah Tikva 2-1, courtesy of goals from Idan Shriki and Dimitar Makriev.
Meanwhile, Maccabi Petah Tikva only just avoided the relegation playoffs thanks to Ramat Gan¹s defeat at Bloomfield. Freddy David's men failed to hold on to a two-goal lead at home to basement boys Hapoel Ra'anana, and were undone by a hat-trick from Lithuanian striker Ricardas Beniusis in a 3-2 defeat.
In the day's remaining matches Saturday, Hapoel Beersheba 'keeper Tvrtko Kale dramatically headed in an injury-time winner in a 3-2 victory against Hapoel Acre, while Maccabi Netanya and Bnei Yehuda drew one apiece.Maccabi Haifa 0, Hapoel Haifa 0
Although Hapoel will have to battle it out for relegation after failing to haul itself clear of the bottom six, a spirited performance against the table toppers could well give it enough momentum and confidence to ensure it a place in the top flight next season.
Maccabi began brightly, with Ohad Cohen making two fabulous saves from Sa'adat Bukari and Shlomi Arbeitman.
Bukari then wasted a chance to put Maccabi Haifa one up, heading over from Eyal Meshumar's pinpoint cross when left unmarked in the box.
But Hapoel then came back into the game and went close to taking the lead courtesy of two Eran Levy sizzlers.
Maccabi substitute Eyal Golasa was denied by Cohen after the break, while at the other end, Levy played in Yero Bello, but Shai Maimon made a last-ditch tackle to deny the Hapoel forward.
Maccabi appeared to run out of ideas and was restricted by a dogged Hapoel largely to long-range efforts. A couple of those were unleashed by Ali Ottman, but Cohen was equal to the winger's powerful strikes.
And Hapoel's heroic 'keeper saved his side once again at the death, turning Vladimir Dvalishvili's near-post drive into the side-netting.
Hapoel Tel Aviv 3, Hapoel Ramat Gan 1
A supremely confident Hapoel Tel Aviv will be going into the playoffs
with nine wins from the last 10 games after a comfortable victory over
Ramat Gan at Bloomfield Stadium.
The hosts took the lead courtesy of a dubious ninth-minute penalty,
which Hapoel's ever-reliable 'keeper Vincent Enyeama converted after
Bojan Vrucina was adjudged to have been fouled by Tamir Ben-Ami.
Six minutes later, Eli Gutman¹s side doubled the advantage. Eran Zehavi
played a one-two with midfield maestro Gili Vermut and finished with
aplomb, slotting the ball under Rafi Cohen.
Tel Aviv was in complete control, and extended the lead after 33 minutes when Itai Shechter smashed in his 22nd goal of the season from the penalty spot after he was brought down by Golan Hermon.
Benny Haddad pulled one back for the visitors four minutes before the
break, collecting Serge Ayeli's pass and stabbing the ball home off the
post. However, the goal proved to be nothing more than a consolation
for Ramat Gan, which will have to battle for top-flight survival in its
final five fixtures.Soccer Standings:
GP W D L F-A Pts
Maccabi Haifa 30 25 2 3 64-12 39
Hapoel Tel Aviv 30 21 8 1 79-25 36
Maccabi Tel Aviv 30 15 7 8 47-33 26
Betar Jerusalem 30 13 7 10 46-34 23
Bnei Yehuda 30 12 9 9 37-30 23
Ashdod SC 30 11 10 9 32-31 22
Bnei Sakhnin 30 11 8 11 28-29 21
Hapoel Beersheba 30 10 10 10 44-50 20
Maccabi Netanya 30 9 9 12 41-40 18
Maccabi PT 30 8 11 11 37-43 18
H. Ramat Gan 30 8 9 13 26-46 17
Hapoel Haifa 30 8 8 14 39-45 16
Hapoel PT 30 6 13 11 23-41 16
Hapoel Acre 30 4 13 13 32-46 13
Ahi Nazareth 30 6 6 18 27-67 12
Hapoel Ra'anana 30 4 8 18 27-57 10
*Point totals were halved and league was split into three sections
after 30 matches.